Is the Leveson inquiry too gossipy?

People love gossip, but it risks detracting from the bigger issues.

Rebekah Brooks was the big buzz of this week's Leveson inquiry, facing a full day of questioning. Many hoped that for a bombshell that would lead to cabinet resignations or arrests. In hindsight, it was obvious that Brooks would have been drilled into banality by her lawyers. But what did we have instead? Six hours of testimony on which parties Brooks attended, how the Prime Minister is unsure about his text slang (something he shares with mums across the country), who said what to who. And, on Twitter, an endless stream of commentary on her hair (mostly positive), her dress (Puritan Crucible-witch style) and her voice (surprisingly posh for a tabloid hack). By the end, even Brooks, not known for her gender politics, was riled. She said:

You have put to me quite a few gossipy items, for want of a better word: my personal alchemy; did Rupert Murdoch and I swim; where did I get the horse from; did Mr Murdoch buy me a suit; the list is endless. I do feel that is merely a systematic issue that I think a lot of it is gender-based – if I was a grumpy old man of Fleet Street no one would write a word about it.

Does she have a point? I think so. Aside from the feminist problems with analysing Brooks' appearance, there is a more general problem at Leveson with too much gossip. The great Cameron-LOL revelations came after Robert Jay, QC, asked "How were these texts signed off? Everyone wants to know." News websites published text guides for the PM within minutes of the revelation, and LOLgate was trending on Twitter for the rest of the afternoon. “Everyone wants to know” - all us plebs together, leaping on this chance to ask the great and the powerful about the intricate details of their private lives, and salivating over tiny, and pathetically ordinary scraps that they let fall from the plate. It's like the Sun for the Twitterati.

We learnt today that Cherie Blair didn't like being criticised for her weight. There was a bizarre interlude where Brooks told the inquiry about caravan holiday camps that she, the Sun staff and readers went on once a year. She revealed office in-jokes like the "Vatican-style chimney" News International staff installed at Wapping before revealing who they would support in the 2005 election. But if the inquiry, and by extension, those watching at home, get distracted by these little gossipy asides, they are in danger of missing the bigger stories. I'm sure that Brooks, as a seasoned hack, knows this. People love gossip.

The stories that matter were these: several meetings were admitted here by Brooks that hadn't previously been admitted by Cameron's office. Jeremy Hunt asked for private advice from News International on the "line" the government should take on phone hacking. George Osborne will not be appearing at the inquiry despite increasing evidence of his influence, particularly in the BSkyB bid.

It's these facts that we should be concentrating on. Jay and Levesonshould have pushed Brooks harder on the issues that matter, and not wasted time on personal details. They repeatedly let Brooks get away with "I don't know" or "I don't recall". The Leveson inquiry is in danger of becoming a huge missed opportunity. If Cameron succeeds in handing over responsibility for his minister, Jeremy Hunt's conduct to Leveson, as he is attempting to, he is abdicating responsibility to people who can't deal with it. This, no doubt, would work out very well for him.

Obviously, the fact that Brooks and our Prime Minister had private dinners is important, and we need to know that it happened. But the tendency towards scurrilous gossip has to stop, or we risk losing whatever benefit we might have accrued through this very public inquiry.

Oh and by the way, if anyone is interested, Grazia helpfully tweeted that Brooks was wearing the Marcie Peter Pan shift by Suzannah, priced at £475.
 

Rebekah Brooks leaves the High Court. Photograph: Getty Images
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Theresa May defies the right by maintaining 0.7% aid pledge

The Prime Minister offers rare continuity with David Cameron but vows to re-examine how the money is spent. 

From the moment Theresa May became Prime Minister, there was speculation that she would abandon the UK's 0.7 per cent aid pledge. She appointed Priti Patel, a previous opponent of the target, as International Development Secretary and repeatedly refused to extend the commitment beyond this parliament. When an early general election was called, the assumption was that 0.7 per cent would not make the manifesto.

But at a campaign event in her Maidenhead constituency, May announced that it would. "Let’s be clear – the 0.7 per cent commitment remains, and will remain," she said in response to a question from the Daily Telegraph's Kate McCann. But she added: "What we need to do, though, is to look at how that money will be spent, and make sure that we are able to spend that money in the most effective way." May has left open the possibility that the UK could abandon the OECD definition of aid and potentially reclassify defence spending for this purpose.

Yet by maintaining the 0.7 per cent pledge, May has faced down her party's right and title such as the Sun and the Daily Mail. On grammar schools, climate change and Brexit, Tory MPs have cheered the Prime Minister's stances but she has now upheld a key component of David Cameron's legacy. George Osborne was one of the first to praise May's decision, tweeting: "Recommitment to 0.7% aid target very welcome. Morally right, strengthens UK influence & was key to creating modern compassionate Conservatives".

A Conservative aide told me that the announcement reflected May's personal commitment to international development, pointing to her recent speech to International Development staff. 

But another Cameron-era target - the state pension "triple lock" - appears less secure. Asked whether the government would continue to raise pensions every year, May pointed to the Tories' record, rather than making any future commitment. The triple lock, which ensures pensions rise in line with average earnings, CPI inflation or by 2.5 per cent (whichever is highest), has long been regarded by some Conservatives as unaffordable. 

Meanwhile, Philip Hammond has hinted that the Tories' "tax lock", which bars increases in income tax, VAT and National Insurance, could be similarly dropped. He said: "I’m a Conservative. I have no ideological desire to to raise taxes. But we need to manage the economy sensibly and sustainably. We need to get the fiscal accounts back into shape.

"It was self evidently clear that the commitments that were made in the 2015 manifesto did and do today constrain the ability to manage the economy flexibly."

May's short speech to workers at a GlaxoSmithKline factory was most notable for her emphasis that "the result is not certain" (the same message delivered by Jeremy Corbyn yesterday). As I reported on Wednesday, the Tories fear that the belief that Labour cannot win could reduce their lead as voters conclude there is no need to turn out. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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